An imagist non-sequitir

Ezra Pound. Image:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound’s 1913 imagist masterpiece, In a Station of the Metro, showcases perfectly the power of punctuation. When reading a text, the punctuation can all too often act as a means to an end, as a scaffolding that holds the language together and keeps it on the right line. This is not the case with Pound’s poem. The semi-colon at the end of the first line contains the whole meaning of the poem. It is the point at which the poem turns, at which the poem communicates its meaning to us.

One day while waiting to board the Paris metro, Pound was struck by the sudden beauty and magnificence of the crowd, and soon set out on a poetic odyssey to capture this moment in verse. In a Station of the Metro is the conclusion of this quest. He distilled and distilled his poetry until it was down to its bare-bones. The work we have in front of us is perhaps the purest piece of poetry you will ever find written in the English language. And its meaning is entirely within the semi-colon. The moment our brain connects the two lines, places the images besides one another, computes the grammatical instruction of the semi-colon; there is the meaning of the poem. Pound has reversed the function of language and punctuation: language acts as the scaffolding for the instant that he has tried to capture; the punctuation is the pure portrayal of the emotion of that instant. A critic once described T.S. Eliot’s punctuation as ‘sad’; if Eliot’s is sad, then Pound’s semi-colon is surely exultant.

by Daniel Davies

A different version of this non-sequitir was previously posted at the blog Slow Rolling On.


2 responses to “An imagist non-sequitir

  1. I fully agree, but in my own experience of the poem also find that the brilliance of that semi-colon lies in the ambiguity it creates. As you say, it perfectly captures the epiphanic moment. It is also subtly disruptive; by connecting the strangely harmonic images it emphasises their divergence. It may intimate the flow of consciousness but present one image as having little to do with whatever it succeeds. The individual image recedes from the perfection of its partnership with the other towards its own beauty as a line of poetry (the rhythm, of the second line especially, is crucial) yet almost immediately flows back to that previous point of exultation. The poem as a whole hangs uncertainly (and wonderfully) in this dynamic relationship.

    Anyway, we could probably go on for pages about just how good this poem is.

  2. Here are 6 reasons you are both wrong:

    1. The poem is short, evidently the work of a lazy man.
    2. The poem doesn’t rhyme; Pound clearly failed to master even the most basic principles of good poetry.
    3. The second line lacks a verb. Only an individual with a weak grasp of the English (or for that matter, any) language would make such a glaring error.
    4. Pound was a fascist and anti-Semite. To praise his poetry is to praise his politics.
    5. The poem is considered “modernist”, yet was written almost a century ago. Even a fool can see that this is contradictory.
    6. The poem is designed to describe Pound’s experience of beauty, yet the poet fails to use any describing words, or “adjectives”.

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